State employees get some protections in bill, but grievance procedures shortened

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2013 

— Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to sign a bill that speeds up the employee grievance process for state workers but backs away from earlier efforts to sharply curtail their civil service protections.

The measure, initiated by the McCrory administration, also increases the number of political hires the governor can make to 1,500, moves the State Personnel Office under the direct control of the governor’s office and shortens the appeal process for state employees who are fired or disciplined.

But the measure no longer includes the most contentious proposal – removing the employee appeals process from independent administrative law judges to hearing officers named by political appointees of the governor. State employee groups, attorneys who represents state employees, and academic experts had said such a move would have had the effect of stripping 90,000 state employees of their traditional civil service protections and making them “at will” employees.

A host of opposition

The bill drew opposition from the State Employees Association of North Carolina but still passed the House in a divided 74-40 vote in May. A compromise was hammered out in the state Senate, and House Bill 834 passed both chambers late last month.

“The House version of the bill would really have been devastating to state employees and to the independence of state employees to be able to do their public service jobs,” said Dana Cope, executive director of SEANC.

“But in the end, the process became so much fairer, and we had a final product in which we compromised with the governor’s office and the General Assembly and which will serve North Carolina well.”

McCrory, a Republican, announced in May that he wanted to overhaul the state personnel system, saying it was antiquated and that the state needed more flexibility in both rewarding good employees and firing nonperforming state workers.

The measure on the governor’s desk speeds up grievance procedures. It limits the agency grievance procedure and the Office of State Personnel Review to 90 days. It is now 120 days.

The bill preserves the Office of Administrative Hearings as an independent decision-maker in state personnel cases, so that any employee can get his day in open court with counsel and discovery but requires the hearing last no more than 120 days. There currently is no time limit.

‘Protections are preserved’

“The due process protections are preserved,” said Julian Mann, chief administrative law judge. “The state employees’ property interest in their employment is protected. The hearing will be conducted by a neutral administrative law judge.”

The bill, however, eliminates appeals to superior court judges and instead sends the cases directly to the N.C. Court of Appeals. It also increases number of political positions – those positions exempt from the protections of the State Personnel Act from 1,000 to 1,500. The legislature increased the number from 400 in January.

Michael Byrne, an employment attorney, praised the legislature for vastly changing the bill, and protecting the rights of state workers. But he said the record high number of exempt positions was troubling.

“The danger there, is more institutional,” Byrne said. “If you have a true interest in a professionalized civil service at the state level you are essentially telling some capable young woman or man who wants to enter government service that you can only get up to a certain relatively mid level before you have to have to have a political patron or you have to be politically involved.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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